Saturday, March 4, 2017

Ernest Chausson - Symphony; La tempête; Viviane; Soir de fête (Yan Pascal Tortelier)


Composer: Ernest Chausson
  1. Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20: I. Lent
  2. Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20: II. Très lent -
  3. Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20: III. Animé
  4. Viviane, symphonic poem, Op. 5
  5. Soir de fête, symphonic poem, Op. 32
  6. La tempête, incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest, Op. 18: Air de danse
  7. La tempête, incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest, Op. 18: Danse rustique

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor
Date: 1997
Label: Chandos



There are at least two misconceptions to put right about Franck’s arguably most gifted pupil. The first, which this new disc dispels admirably, is that the majority of Chausson’s music, in the manner of his Poeme, is endlessly melancholic or elegiac. And the second, which Tortelier’s disc doesn’t dispel quite as well as the similarly coupled offering from Plasson, is that in his orchestral writing Chausson never managed to free himself from Wagner’s embrace. Never entirely perhaps, but by the time the 43-year-old composer came to write his last orchestral piece, the nocturnal Soir de fete included here, his escape from Wagner was well underway, and who knows where it might have led, had it not been for his tragically early death the following year (1899)? The outer sections of Soir de fete have something about them of ‘the vibrating, dancing rhythms of the atmosphere’ of Debussy’s later Fetes, and one explicit example of Debussian impressionism, with strings almost imperceptibly shadowing low flutes as the piece eases into its central ‘poetic calm and silence of the night’ (Chausson and the younger Debussy were close friends, and the influence worked both ways); the piece could even carry a seed of Koechlin’s extraordinary astral contemplations.

Plasson’s 1970s recordings more readily evoke these connections because the brighter and lighter timbres, as recorded, of his French orchestra give a little more feature to Chausson’s distinctive way with his upper instruments. But taking the programme as a whole, the overall richness of the orchestral process – whether Wagnerian, Franckian, Straussian (as in the Arthurian sorcerer Merlin’s final enchantment by Viviane) or Chaussonian – is probably better served by the fuller-bodied sound of Tortelier’s BBC Philharmonic. The Symphony, like Franck’s, is cyclical, but not otherwise as indebted to the older composer as is often suggested. One writer in a rival publication recently went so far as to suggest that Chausson filled his Symphony with ‘Franckian themes of gloriously bad taste’, which does a tactless disservice to both composers. Unlike Franck’s, Chausson’s lyrical line, as Wilfrid Mellers has put it (in Man and his Music; London: 1962) ‘has an almost Berliozian power and span’. And there are none of Franck’s organ-loft sonorities anywhere in Chausson’s wonderfully variegated, open-air orchestration. Even so, I wouldn’t fully endorse Mellers’s claim that to compare Chausson’s Symphony with Franck’s is ‘to appreciate the difference between true nobility and grandiose intention’. That does an arguable disservice to the Franck. Whatever your view, Tortelier here gives us the finest modern recording of the Chausson Symphony now available. Among distinguished predecessors, it may lack the almost reckless abandon of Charles Munch, or some of the intensity and expressive refinements of Plasson, but each movement is superbly built, and Chandos is on hand to ensure that climaxes open out with maximum amplitude into Royal Albert Hall-like spaces.

And the disc goes one better than Plasson’s in offering some of the pastoral pleasures from Chausson’s incidental music for The Tempest (slightly differently worked and orchestrated from their appearance in Kantorow’s complete recording – EMI, 4/96), although the Chandos sound here is perhaps a little bulky for pieces of such un-Wagnerian modesty.

-- John SteaneGramophone

More reviews:
BBC Music Magazine  PERFORMANCE: **** / SOUND: ****


Ernest Chausson (20 January 1855 – 10 June 1899) was a French romantic composer who died just as his career was beginning to flourish. He studied with Jules Massenet at the Paris Conservatoire, and  also with César Franck, with whom he formed a close friendship. Chausson left behind only 39 opus-numbered pieces.  The quality and originality of his compositions are consistently high, and several of his works continue to make occasional appearances on programs of leading singers, chamber music ensembles and orchestras.


Yan Pascal Tortelier (born 19 April 1947) is a French conductor and violinist, and is the son of the cellist Paul Tortelier. He was principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra (1989-1992), the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (1992-2003), Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (2009-2011) and currently, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. He is a regular recording artist for Chandos Records, and has conducted commercial recordings for Chandos with the BBC Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the OSESP.


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